Why is the Agile community so hung up on certifications?

Last post 05:57 pm May 11, 2019
by Jason Jafarian
16 replies
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02:55 pm April 12, 2019

For a community that clams to understand human psychology and be critical thinkers, how is the Agile community so hung up on the drive and seemingly mandatory need to get certifications when there are so many wise sage's without these certs? Coming from the context-driven testing community, we realize that certifications are worth little more than the paper they are printed on, as they narrow the scope of the testing craft to a finite set of things you can memorize and test on. This blog post sums up my feelings on certifications in the QA/Testing arena, and I believe the same is true in the Agile arena...

https://www.satisfice.com/blog/archives/36

So, I ask that you read this article and replace "testing" with "being a Scrum Master" anywhere you see it - Doesn't his truth still apply? 

I would like some real answers/justifications why people think certifications are actually necessary in order to do good work? The reason "because it's required on the job description I am applying for" isn't valid since that's obviously somewhere that doesn't understand that someone can be an amazing Scrum Master or Agile coach without any certs. Many of these companies and groups are taking advantage of naive people and charging them thousands for something that doesn't actually prove you know or have experience with anything other than you passed a class/exam.

03:24 pm April 12, 2019

I come from a context-driven testing background of almost 20 years.  Before that I was a procedural language programmer so I can truthfully say that I understand your statement.  In fact, I completely agree with you.  But if you look at my profile you can see that I have earned multiple certifications from scrum.org.  So let me explain why.

The certifications from scrum.org are different that others. The tests and certifications are designed to exercise your knowledge of Scrum and Agile instead of your ability to remember something you were recently taught in a class. I appreciate that these certificate holders have proven real knowledge.  

Why do I get them?  It is purely for myself. I use them to help me gauge my own understanding.  I honestly don't care if anyone but me knows I have them.  Yeah, I put them on my resume and LinkedIn profile because some people actually do want to know about them. But the real truth is that I don't care what others think, I do them for my own edification.

I'm going to make one statement to your point that you haven't thought of. I have a Bachelors of Business Administration in Management Information Systems that I achieved in 1987. I will assure that most of the things I learned while getting that degree are totally worthless in today's global economy and technological community.   I am sure that you have a college degree possibly even in Computer Science.  Unless you received that in the last 18 months, I am pretty sure that much of what your learned is either obsolete or becoming that way.  But many companies still require a college degree or "equivalent experience" for most of their jobs.  So how is that much different than the Scrum certifications that I now hold?  

Good question and well worth the debate that I hope ensues. 

04:48 am April 16, 2019

I believe certifications are important because to pass exam and to get certification-

a. You go through agile content multiple times

b. You analyze

c. You clarify your doubts

d. You try to understand what is expected out of your role

This in turn makes you more knowledgeable and you understand your responsibilities in true sense 

I agree you can do it even without appearing for certifications but you tend to be lazy or may not invest that much efforts in understanding --Why things are mentioned in Scrum guide the way they are. If you are doing all above even without going for certification it's good. But added advantage of certification is say you have cleared PSM exam- outside world know they can rely on you. Especially during interview noone has time to ask you 100 questions to know your knowledge.

02:44 pm April 17, 2019

"But many companies still require a college degree or "equivalent experience" for most of their jobs.  So how is that much different than the Scrum certifications that I now hold?" - Daniel

Daniel, yes, I went back late and finished my degree in 2014, but I don't consider that to mean anything other than I have a work ethic that says I finish what I started. Literally all of the knowledge I gained in that degree program was available freely through other means, just like the content provided by Scrum.org, ScrumAlliance, etc. I am a bit concerned about the culture of the community being so bought into the idea that certifications mean anything at all, other than you passed a specific test that someone wrote about specific things. I am a hiring manager and could not care less if someone has a degree or a certification when it comes to testing, development, agile, etc. I've met people in their later 20s with no degrees or certs at all that have more emotional maturity and raw intuition/tacit knowledge than people who have Masters degrees and been in the field for 20 years. The latter are folks who don't have a learning mindset, terrible soft skills, and will honestly never 'get there' to the level of that other person. Give me someone with a firm command of their soft skills and no degrees or tech knowledge any day for a Scrum Master position or Agile Coach, over the reverse. Technical skills, Agile history, practices, process, folklore, etc can all be taught and consumed by anyone with a learning mindset. Soft skills are much more difficult to teach. I would think the community would understand this, and as true servant-leaders not try to deceive new/naive folks into the 'you must pay money to prove yourself' mindset. I think that's unethical and immoral.

Long story short, I have yet to see a case when a degree/certification is "required" for anything we do in software development (Dev, QA, PO, SM, etc) and I am saddened that so many in the community have no qualms about exploiting that. It's a stark comparison to the CDT community where everything is open, free, etc. The only thing you 'pay' for is conferences. ISTQB is the immoral equivalent in the Testing world, and completely unnecessary.

"But added advantage of certification is say you have cleared PSM exam- outside world know they can rely on you" - vishal

If I found out that this was the view of the hiring managers for a company I was applying to, I would call them up and tell them to stop considering me for the position. This means they have an unhealthy view of what certification actiall mean, which is little to nothing. I know this because in the testing world the ISTQB certification proves you showed up for a test and paid some money, but little else. After having been through the CSM course now, it is the same. There's nothing in that class I learn that is part of the test content. What I learned of value was from the instructors examples and anecdotes, which is not part of the course content, meaning this having the cert also proves nothing about my value or knowledge set. If a company is using the presence of certifications on resumes to weed folks out, I would not want to work there, as it shows they do not actually understand how to measure good talent. If I did get a job there, then sure, you'd probably have a few bright spots, but it'd mean I was potentially joining a company of people who have accumulated accolades but are not true scholars and crafstman of their skillset. I see no benefit for me to pursue those hiring managers/companies.

 

03:41 pm April 17, 2019

@C R, As I said in my original post, I completely agree with you on whether a certification means anything to being qualified for to do a job. I just do them for my edification to help me determine my knowledge.  And I share them because there are some people/companies that value them. I frequently see job postings for Scrum Master and Agile Coaches that want the certifications so I show that I have them.  

Some of the best software professionals I have ever known did not have degrees or had degrees in completely unrelated fields. As you said, they show that you can learn and have the discipline to focus yourself on specific things.Those are some of the same things for which I respect people with certs. But in the end it is your experience and ability to demonstrate your skills that will win me over. 

04:01 pm April 17, 2019

 This means they have an unhealthy view of what certification actiall mean, which is little to nothing. I know this because in the testing world the ISTQB certification proves you showed up for a test and paid some money, but little else. After having been through the CSM course now, it is the same.

You are comparing your bad experiences with some certifications with all. PSM certification is not that easy & needs good understanding of Scrum to clear it. There are 100 exams ..1000 certifications.. We can't see all with same glass.

05:24 pm April 17, 2019

You are comparing your bad experiences with some certifications with all.

I know what you're trying to say, but I take exception with the exploitation that seems to come along with it. I mean, look at this link for example and tell me that doesn't seem like 'Agile mob racketeering'

https://www.scrumalliance.org/get-certified/renewing-certifications

Line up for your chance to approach the throne, kiss the king's feet and lay down a sacrifice every two weeks to prove your worth and keep your land. Oh, you aren't going to pay? We'll excommunicate you then, delist you from the registry and stop recommending that you know what you are talking about, even if you are 'actually' qualified in experience and tacit understanding. I feel like someone with clout in the community needs to stand up against this like James Bach and others did in the testing community, but that took 30+ years of maturity. Maybe this community isn't there yet to call out the BS of this machine yet. 

09:41 pm April 22, 2019

Certifications are useful to show that you have a base level of knowledge. They don't prove you know what you're talking about, but they may give you the opportunity to show it.

 

I have a PSM-I. I took this certification to show that I fully understood Scrum and Agile.  This year, I'm working on my PSPO-1 with the idea of being able to fill either the Product Owner or Scrum Master role at my company.

05:11 pm April 23, 2019

I was originally certified as a CSM through Scrum Alliance, but I eventually decided to let my certification expire.   It simply wasn't worth forking over a couple hundred dollars to keep the vanity-based CSM "badge".   

And I don't throw the vanity term around loosely.   Here is actual text from the Scrum Alliance website on why they believe it is a good thing to renew certifications every 2 years:

  • Differentiate yourself from others in your field by receiving an endorsement of your skills, knowledge, and abilities from the largest, most established, and influential Agile certifying body.
  • Open the door to career advancement opportunities and the potential for increased earnings.
  • Participate in volunteer opportunities and influence the future of Scrum.
  • Continue your path in obtaining more advanced certifications.
  • Display digital badging to promote your achievements.

This is their justification behind their 2-year certification renewal business model.   In my opinion, it is a cash cow that does not promote what it claims it represents.   Many of these bullet points can be pursued without the need to re-certify. 

I know of many Agile Trainers and Coaches that have also walked away from Scrum Alliance certification.   I am happy to include myself in their ranks, and I acknowledge Scrum.Org as a much stronger and more ethical certification body.

08:03 am April 24, 2019

I agree that there are people without a certification that may be the very best testers, Scrum Masters, developers, Product Owners, etc. And there are quite a few people that do have a certification, but who should never be exposed to a team as they will probably do more harm than good. Finding the right person for the job is the challenge of the hiring manager.

The problem often lies with the talent scouting procedures. Head hunters and recruiters are usually the first to spot someone and to bring a candidate and a hiring manager together. These head hunters and recruiters are skilled at their profession, but do not necessarily have a lot of relevant experience in the field they are scouting for. They may not know that you are worth your weight in gold to a hiring manager. 

Sadly, you can only excel at a job if you are considered for the position. For this, usually PSM I or PSPO I is enough. This is why there are several hundreds of thousands of people holding that certification.

PSM II (and hopefully III, waiting for the results) for me were nice challenges. I would like to think I know a lot, but know that there is plenty for me to learn. Doing a difficult exam helps me focus on the area that I lack the most in.

03:37 pm April 29, 2019

Timothy Baffa! You are confirming what I suspected, but were able to back it up with their own wording. I also felt it was simply for the sake of profit, and not really out of the desire to educate. I get it - teachers should be compensated, but I much prefer the individual consultant model where companies pay you to come on site and teach the class - get your money that way, not simply for the 'badge'. It's a racket in my opinion.

One question, you said...

I acknowledge Scrum.Org as a much stronger and more ethical certification body.

Is that simply because they 'recommend' not 'force' you to take an in person class, so the cost is lower for the test fee only?

04:27 pm May 1, 2019

I think the Scrum Alliance has done a better job of marketing, but frankly the requirement to take a 2 day class for $1500 is a barrier to entry for many.  I also feel that the CSM testing is not as good measure as the PSM-I of whether someone really understands Scrum.  A 1 hour, 50 question, open book test that you can pass at 75% is not as rigorous a test of understanding as a 1 hour, 80 question test that you have to pass at 85%. 

There are a glut of CSMs on the market, many of which have a cert without any real understanding beyond what they learned in a two day class. My believe is that PSMs have a much better understanding of Scrum and Agile overall.

The comment about the Scrum guide being published through the Scrum Alliance is nonsense.  The Scrum Guide is posted, as it always has been, through ScrumGuides.org.  This has nothing to do with either accreditation body.

Frankly, a certificate only shows you can pass a test. It's the learning and thinking you do in order to pass the test that provides the real value. I spent as much time in forums like this, asking questions and rendering my uninformed opinions and getting corrected or sometimes listened to as I did studying for the test.  It let me pass the test,and then apply what I learned without being tied into a specific approach.

01:54 pm May 3, 2019

Frankly, a certificate only shows you can pass a test. It's the learning and thinking you do in order to pass the test that provides the real value.

That's exactly my point...why aren't more in the Agile community promoting this stance, like I see in the QA/Testing community? Not mature enough yet? or they Really believe it means more than that? or they genuinely don't have integrity and like the cash cow? What's the real reason? I have my certs from Scrum Alliance, CompTIA, Microsoft, etc. but I don't put any of that on my resume because it doesn't prove anything.

Bottom line, I doubt the integrity of any Scrum Master who comes to me to prove their worth through certifications.

02:34 pm May 3, 2019

I think the problem is that Agile is still seen by too many as a magic bullet rather than as a complete change of mindframe.

Mindframe changes require cultural change and hard work.  A framework requires people to attend a few classes, get a few certifications and then we're off to the races. Never mind none of the people actually know how to ride a horse, since the only knowledge they have was from watching a few videos of other people riding horses and being told how great riding a horse is.

07:05 pm May 3, 2019

@Connor, I think that you see it like it would be "black and white", "0 and 1" things, but life is more complex than that.

Most people that I met who point that "degree / cert doesn't matter, everything is for free in the internet to learn" use it only as a nice, simple excuse to just do ... nothing, or at least do something inefficient or irrelevant. Heaving a goal helps you to focus, motivates you - if it happens to have also a teacher / coach that could guide you through your path is even better.

I do not want to write an essay here, so to put it simple - everyone at the end of the day proves their value through the journey they had, but the tools that you bring into it can help you made it through ... or fail miserable.

06:36 pm May 7, 2019

That's an interesting take. I don't know if you've just been surrounded by lazy workers or people who have lied to you about their intentions, but I rarely meet people who say they don't get certs to avoid work. In fact, some of those people who are avoiding them are the most hard working critical thinkers I know. James Bach (the author of the original blog link I posted in the original post) is one of the smartest people alive and an 8th grade drop-out. He wrote a booked called "Buccaneer Scholar" which is all about the pursuit of self-education and learning being critical to his success, but his main point is that you don't have to let someone charge you for knowledge, you can seek it out yourself, hence the title of his book. It's a great read, and I highly recommend it.

Also, there's definitely a gradient, and I don't see things as black and white (1 or 0). I come from the context driven testing community (my background) where we don't even believe in the existence of best practices. It's not a thing, since context changes from project to project and company to company. There's too much variety to claim 100% one way or the other here, which is why there is one argument FOR certification that I cannot confidently refute. That stance is the view that 'getting certs is valuable if only to get your foot in the door to convince those people certs are unnecessary'. So using it as a sly way to bait-and-switch and be a change-agent in an organization to convince them to be critical thinkers, hire differently, and not be so blindly guided by acronyms and accolades on resumes. Of course, the counterargument there is 'Why would you want to try to spend the effort working for those people when you can go somewhere else that already has a healthier mindset around the value/lack of value of certs?' which I agree with also. So far, that's the only pro-cert argument I've struggled to fully put to bed, depending on what kind of change you want to enact. It still doesn't make the PDU/credit/renewal system ethical though.

05:57 pm May 11, 2019

I've always felt certifications were valuable as a way to objectively measure competency in a skill. If you look at other industries they do a pretty good job of that, because certifications often require years of experience and difficult examinations.

Agile unfortunately really lowered the skill floor with its certification lineups.  You have certs like the CSM that are essentially a certificate of completion for attending a workshop.  These "certifications" wouldn't make the cut in other industries, and I find it a bit off-putting how frequently they're recommended.  But it's also important to note that the upper level certs (think Six Sigma Black Belt, PSM III, etc.) do still "prove you know or have experience."  Just because the most common certifications have a low skill floor doesn't mean there aren't meaningful agile certs in the mix.